White America quickly labeled the unrest "riots," while black America insisted they were "rebellions," an angry response to the ugly statistics that measured the enormous gap between the two societies.
Whether they were riots or rebellions, what President Johnson sought were solutions, not the usual avalanche of rhetoric to which America had become so accustomed.
When the commission's 425-page report was released - 20 years ago this week - it dominated the news and had an indelible impact on American institutions ranging from politics to media to the military to employment and education.
The report stated that America was clearly headed toward two societies - one white, the other black. It further noted that the nation has so far failed to deliver to countless citizens, and particularly to many blacks (called Negroes back then), that measure of equality that lies in the heart of the American idea.
The report concluded that America had the capability of delivering its promise of equality to all. It suggested that the most prosperous and most powerful nation in history, which concerns itself with poverty, discrimination and deprivation around the world, can successfully apply its vast resources to these widespread ills at home.
Opportunities for blacks appeared in nearly every field as corporate America tried to make up for its past wrongs. Jobs opened up for blacks that had always been denied them in the past. Many whites supported the effort, but others - millions of them - resented the attention minorities were paid and a permanent and powerful white backlash inexorably crept into the mood of America.
While blacks moved up, they did so within certain prescribed limitations. Doors opened, but ceilings were placed on how high they might be promoted; opportunities blossomed, but not with the fullness that came naturally to white Americans. Northern whites, who once looked down their noses at the white South, discovered a social astigmatism that impaired their own vision.
In a sense, the nation became more divided than ever. After a time there was a resurgence of racism born of the resentment aimed at blacks who appeared to be the benefactors of something called "reverse discrimination."
Still, in politics, education, police work, corporate America, communications, and unskilled labor, blacks began making inroads. Quotas were established that made it possible for some blacks to enter markets previously
closed to them. But the basic problem of whether blacks could be brought into full participation in society remained elusive. If anything was clear, it was that there was no national will to open the doors of opportunity to all.
For a time blacks were elated. They gained self-esteem, self-confidence and lived with the hope that the burden of racism would soon disappear. It never did. While progress for blacks has been undeniable, problems continue to haunt them. School integration was the law of the land, but in practice it remained largely a dream unfulfilled.
In the '60s and '70s America was deeply involved in the war in Vietnam that many believed created an economic choice. It had to be guns or butter, not both. Blacks suffered as a result.
Other groups - mainly gays, women, Hispanics and Native Americans - began to compete for equity. Before long, the black stride toward freedom took on less importance, as other groups inched forward. Leadership of blacks dissipated with the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, Whitney Young in 1971 and Roy Wilkins in 1981.
Today, blacks often cite the metaphor of the late Dr. King, who said that blacks hold in their hands a promissory note stamped "insufficient funds."
Many blacks are bitter. They believe government has failed them once again, that the promise of the Kerner Commission report has not been realized, after 20 years. And, what's more, there is no new commission report, little to indicate that they should have any great expectations.
There remain, nonetheless, reasons for outrage and reasons for hope. The question is, however, which are greater? Despite the presence of Jesse Jackson in the presidential race, gaps between blacks and whites have widened, a smaller percentage of blacks are able to go to college, unemployment among blacks is often double that of whites and minorities are still the last hired and the first fired.
What continues to be missing is that same needed ingredient cited by the Kerner Commission back in 1968: A national will to bring those 18th-century truths, which all Americans supposedly hold self-evident, into 20th-century - and soon, 21st-century reality.